Why and When do People Hide Knowledge?

He Peng, Professor of Business Administration at School of Management, Fudan University in Shanghai, looks into the question that makes the Fortune 500 companies lose an estimated $31.5bn a year by failing to share knowledge. 

Imagine that you work for a fast-pace company, a leader in its field and up against stiff competition from a number of other renowned firms. Thanks to a chance meeting at your daughter’s school open day at the weekend, you’ve learnt that there are three golden leads open to your company, each with a potential contract in hand. Do you tell it to the sales guys across the corridor? Working on a commission basis they might be only too happy to take the information – and the glory – from you. Or do you keep it for yourself and the meeting you have in mind to request with your CEO? You look through the door of your office that gives out to the sales department and meet the eye of one of the Key Account Managers. Little do you know that she too was at your daughter’s school open day and by chance happened to chat with the same contact as you. At this very moment, your gazes meet briefly across the office floor: she is thinking – her mind grappling with the very same decision to make as yours.

Hide and seek

Professor He Peng of School of Management, Fudan University has carried out research into knowledge hiding – the conundrum that may face us all at one point in our working lives. It is also an issue that faces our companies and organisations, knowledge hiding accounting for an estimated $31.5bn a year in lost revenues among those listed on the Fortune 500.

Professor Peng’s angle is that while a lot of attention has been paid to knowledge sharing and how to encourage this – indeed, the competitive advantages of more and more organizations depend on effective knowledge management – little research has been made into what makes people hide it.

Knowledge hiding is all about withholding or concealing task information, ideas, and know-how and its effects can be many and varied. It implies, for example, that an employee will give less than the maximum in contributing to the firm’s knowledge. It also puts up barriers to collaborations within a company, new ideas, or the implementation of policies or procedures. And in the end run, it will negatively impact the team and organisational performance. It may be argued that hiding knowledge is sometimes for a good cause – like protecting a colleague’s feelings by not mentioning that his boss thinks his work is of no use. But the usual meaning hiding knowledge carries is negative and bears on an individual’s contribution in most work settings. Knowledge sharing, on the other hand, is wholly positive.

Carrying out research using a web-based survey questionnaire, Prof. Peng tested out several hypotheses, collecting and crunching the data of 161 male and 69 female employees working in a Shanghai IT industry company. The results supported his theory that hiding knowledge comes about through two factors, with a third coming into play that could reduce the impact the former: the notions of an employee’s psychological ownership of knowledge, territoriality, and his/her degree of psychological ownership for the organisation. What are these? And how do they impact knowledge hiding?

A fine line between ‘me’ and ‘mine’

We’ve all met the John and Mary’s of this working world who have sat behind the department’s newly acquired technological gizmo on which to develop their website or turn stats into amazing radar charts. They work long hours on it, invest much effort, begin to control it and become so familiar with it that they begin to see it as theirs – almost a natural extension of the self. And when one day you happen to need the machine for a one-off assignment, you can almost hear the words coming loud and clear from John or Mary’s minds as you approach their desk: “It’s mine!” You’ve just been a witness to what is termed psychological ownership.

According to Prof. Peng, individuals can easily form an ownership feeling over a target if they have constant control over it, invest much time or energy on it, or are familiar with it. Ownership will tend to generate an unwillingness to share with others. To do so would amount to an experience of loss of control and give rise to negative emotions that would typically follow such a loss, including frustration, stress and dysfunctional behaviours. Moreover, seeing that the owner has become, in sort, a specialist with insider knowledge and skills, this knowledge becomes a source of bargaining power, elevating their own power and status in the organisation. In this sense, psychological ownership for knowledge will be positively related to knowledge hiding. After all, why share something with your co-workers if it can bring you praise and a pay rise?

This land is my land

Psychological ownership of an object or knowledge will lead to a strengthening of the probability to hide knowledge. This is because the stronger an individual’s psychological ownership of an object, the greater the likelihood he or she will treat that object as his or her territory. Such a phenomenon is also present in animals. Nudge into a clearing where a tiger is chomping into a freshly hunted prey and you’ll most probably come up against an acute sense of territorial ownership. Studies first carried out in the animal kingdom by Edney in 1974, were then transferred to the human work environment, in the mid-1980s scholars seeing human territoriality over physical space and objects as a means to organise people so that violence, aggression, and overt domination would become unnecessary. New studies point to territoriality existing over all aspects of the workplace with specific behaviour sets being played out by employees: marking their territory and defending it. This means that employees take on perceptions of not only who should enter the territory, but what should go on there, who should take care of it and what types of activity that are allowed to take place in it. Marking will occur – names on doors, posters, photos of themselves on the wall holding sporting club trophies and even – we may have well seen this – skull and crossbones stickers warning potential invaders of the risks of entering. Defending territory means that the individual will take a variety of ways to prevent or respond to infringements into his/her territory that include holding knowledge privately, complaining to superiors, or yelling at invaders. Those with a high level of territoriality are therefore more likely to withhold knowledge than those with a low level of territoriality.

And this company is mine, but also yours…

There is something else that employees may become attached to and see as their own. This is the company or organisation they work for. And the effect of this isn’t at all bad. Prof. He Peng argues that an individuals’ psychological ownership for the organisation will weaken the effects of territoriality. This is because if an employee has his company at heart and in mind, he’ll come to believe that he is significant, worthy, and valuable to the organization, and will subsequently form a strong organisation-based self-esteem – something that academics call OBSE. A marked feature of high OBSE employees is that they’ll put their efforts into adopting behaviours that will benefit the organisation in order to maintain or even enhance their self-image. Since territoriality may do harm to organisations, employees with a high ownership feeling for the organisation will in turn inhibit the negative effects of territoriality. In this light, it can be argued that the relationship between territoriality and knowledge hiding will be weakened by organisation-based psychological ownership. In a nutshell, thinking of the company as part of yourself – and vice-versa – makes you more willing to share ideas, knowledge and objects with your colleagues.

This indeed has practical implications for companies. One way they can reduce knowledge hiding is to focus on management practices that decrease an individual’s self-perception of possession – for example, by adopting knowledge management tools, promoting teamwork, stressing the collective ownership of knowledge, and advancing individuals’ organisational commitment. Adopting open space working areas also might be a cure for territoriality. And finally, knowledge hiding can be reduced or made to disappear by strengthening employees’ sense of psychological ownership of their company or organisation. Give your employees the possibility to participate in your organisation’s activities and decisions and even give them stock ownership – and the levels of entrepreneurship and innovation inside your firm just might rise dramatically.

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